How to Solve "The Superman Problem."


#1

With the release of Injustice 2, there’s been a lot of talk about “The Superman Problem,” or the question of how to make a character who is “infallible” interesting. There’s a lot of praise of Injustice 2’s solution to the issue, which is to make him just an asshole, but I think that’s curtailing a lot of the core principles of Superman and sort of takes a shortcut by just giving him a weakness.

Not only that, but that solution is beaten ground, whether by sidestories in DC Comics or by imitators. Even if you’re adverse to mainstream cape-comics, you’ve surely read or seen some iteration of a “Superman,” who has a psychosis or is actually bad or whatever. So, what’s your dream Superman and how do you “fix” Superman, without touching the core idea of the character?

What I mean, by the core character, is a single person that is all powerful, that maintains a side identity, and will always do what is “right;” truth, justice, and the American Way, and all that. For examples of some comics that do this well, I’d mostly point to All-Star Superman and Kingdom Come as the two bright points.

So, what’s your ideas?


#2

There are great stories on how Superman deals with these problems in the 90s animated series that ties into the original Batman: The Animated Series, as well as Justice League and Unlimited. Also, All Star Superman (from what I hear) does this fantastically as well. I do not know how to solve the problem, but the thing I want Superman to always be about is to instill hope in the people. Including myself.


#3

Superman: For All Seasons and Secret Identity both are pretty good about just showing a good bit of hope, which has always been the best of the Superman comics.

For me, an aspect of Superman that always seemed really neglected are the roots of the character. Superman is pretty much a Jewish narrative at it’s core. The original Superman, written by Siegel and Shuster, was just a riff on Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the dangers of Fascism, and then was rewritten into the Superman we know today. There’s two ideas that I really wanted to see put together and that was to combine a ground-level view of Superman, a symbol of hope and all that, and also a cautionary tale of the ease for fascism to rise through xenophobia. Different viewpoints, some issues focus upon someone who can see a hope in Superman, those that live in fear, etc.

Lex Luthor already plays the part of a leader for that sort of thing, and it’s easy for the reader to say “this is silly,” because we’re given a 3rd person omniscient view of things, but that’s why you center the comic of ground-level views of Superman’s actions.

It’s easy for this to veer close to the Batman v. Superman territory, or to be handled poorly, but I always thought there was something there at looking at those core roots that commonly just get ignored.


#4

I always thought the “Superman Problem” was kind of a fallacy “He’s too powerful, Batman is more interesting because he’s just a human, Superman’s invincible, there’s no threat.” Nobody opens up a Batman comic and thinks “oh, maybe Batman dies in this one” not even the old sixties ones that say “This Issue, Batman Dies!”

Instead the tension comes from HOW Batman is going to save the day and will he be able to rescue the narratively expendable civilians (even then the answer is almost certainly yes) and Superman is the same way only because his powers are greater the scope is larger.

and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Superman’s greatest villains are smart rather than strong, Luthor, Brainiac,Toyman I guess… they face him with mental challenges and his powers just open up those stories to involve giant robots and meteors and whatever.

I think the real reason some people have trouble writing interesting Superman is that they’re either bad writers, or they’re actually just hung up on the fact that he’s a clean cut nice guy, and they’re too hung up on writing “gritty and edgy” antiheroes. especially at DC which seems by and large to be permanently stuck in the 90s. that’s why one of the best Superman movies in recent memory was Captain America. Superman can totally work they, just keep giving him to people like Zack Snyder who I strongly suspect actually hates Superman.


#5

Yeah, the key is less in writing Superman, but in writing the characters that interact with Superman; ideally interacting with Superman is a quasi-religious experience, and the characters surrounding him are forced to “kill their Buddha” and become better, more enlightened people. Unfortunately, I think DC kinda messed this up by insisting he pair-off and procreate with Lois Lane.


#6

I don’t know that I would go that direction either personally. Superman should inspire people to be better people, but I think another pitfall people fall into is turning him into a Jesus figure. I think Superman needs to be human and have the feelings and desires that go along with that (I guess Jesus is arguably that too, but lets not dig into theology) Superman needs to feel feelings, just that he’s in control of himself, he has to be because an undisciplined Superman is terrifying, thats kind of the thesis Injustice really. I think Clark Kent is central to who Superman is as a person and as a character, he needs that civilian life to keep him grounded and connected to humanity and as a connection point between the readers and him, there is something nice in knowing when life is kicking you around that Superman still clocked in to his job where everyone thought he was a big clumsy doof.
Also, I am ride or die Lois and Clark OTP for life hashtag hashtag


#7

Superman might be my actual favorite Superhero. I love the current Superman book, which could be reasonably called Superdad. Superman, more than any other character, has heart. A burning desire to do good and faith that people, as a whole, are good. If a writer is focusing on who he can hit the hardest, that really feels like it misses the point.

One of the best moments of the Silver Age is an issue where Supes thinks he is dying. What does he do?

He writes an uplifting message on the moon. He lets everyone know that it isn’t the heat vision, super strength, or invulnerability that make him good. It is the goodness in his heart and trying to do the best for others. He is an inspirational figure, but he is not divine. He has emotions. He has internal struggles. He is, to me, one of the most human characters in the DC universe when written well.

If DC isn’t doing a good job with his stories, that’s not unusual. They also thought it was a good idea to make Billy Batson, Captain Marvel, a shitty teen in the New52. I’m still flabergasted at that.


#8

I feel a good alternative to a traditional superman narrative is to reference manga like One Punch Man, Mob Psycho, and My Hero Academia. In these superhero narratives, powers have a clear point that informs the characters + interactions and world, making the Superman figure feel more connected to everything.

In OPM, Saitama is a means to reveal how conceited Super Heroes as an industry are, their empty bravado and need for praise.

Mob’s internal debate to not use his powers on a human being is an extremely compelling take, especially as he comes across other psychics with less qualms about it.

And MHA, looks at what it takes to become/inherit power, as well as another take on a OPM-like hero focused society.

All three stories invest heavily in the characters around the Superman figure, making him more interesting by how he relates to the world around him. Superman lives and dies by his surrounding cast.

EDIT:

Mob loves milk. Vital character detail.


#9

Yeah, I don’t know, having a Superman who doesn’t acknowledge that his powers contribute to who he is seems a little too close to the real-life people who believe in Meritocracy. Of course, all of this is complicated by the fact that Superman exists in our world as extremely lucrative IP, who will be denied any sort of ‘arc’ as a three-dimensional character.


#10

Ok now I really want “DO GOOD TO OTHERS AND EVERY [PERSON] CAN BE A SUPERMAN” to be a Waypoint podcast sign-off, just once.

So his heart is what I’ve always thought makes the character. It’s less about “will he perish?” in saving the Earth, but more about, “will he embody his ideals?” I’ve never gotten super deep into the back issues, but I’ve always loved All-Star Superman. Morrison really got the idea of Superman seeking to preserve a legacy that would inspire people, and wrote some great moments about what that morality looked like in action.

But this has always made Superman really difficult to write, and to communicate to people. It’s something that took me a long time to understand.


#11

I think you’re touching on something with this, but aesthetics is the wrong route to critique. Grant Morrison came back to write Superman for The New 52, and honestly, it sort of dragged. To say he’s a bad writer or that he’s hung up on writing him clean cut just doesn’t ring true, especially since he wrote All-Star which is considered the seminal Superman comic. I mean, it’s not even that gritty and edgy doesn’t work; Red Son Superman is considered by many a favorite, specifically because it is gritty and edgy.

I think the bigger problem is scale, both of the canon and of the threats. Batman and Superman get compared a lot, but I think comparing their stories is actually sort of bunk. No one asks whether Batman dies in this one specifically because they’re detective stories. You don’t ask whether Sherlock Holmes is going to die, because it’s moot to the story. Superman is primarily the story of the Coast Guard, amped up to a larger degree. And how many stories can you really tell about the Coast Guard? Superman has always worked better in self contained stories specifically because each is a fresh take and a fresh universe, wherein stakes can be larger: The Earth could die because this isn’t part of the canon.

I think Superman as an anthology series could work really well, to be honest.


#12

Every superhero is slightly too powerful for their enemies, that’s why they always win. Superman is not overwhelmingly more powerful than Lex Luthor, just like Batman is not overwhelmingly more powerful than the Joker. The only problem with Superman is “the Superman Problem”; people are constantly out to solve a problem that doesn’t exist by making him “cool” and “gritty” and “realistic” and “basically just Nolanverse Batman” and that’s fucking boring.


#13

Let’s talk about All-Star Superman for a second. Really one page. The whole thing is wacky and awesome and you should read, but this page is another absolute best Superman page.

You’ve probably seen it. This is Supes, not just keeping a girl from falling. That’s not really the point. He could scoop her up and place her to safety. He sees someone at a breaking point, and does what he can to help them.

What is crazy about this, is how often this could happen. How many of these choices he must have to make. Do I go to the robbery, or do I help a kitten out of a tree, or do I give a hug to someone who really needs it.

I never saw Supes as blind to the role that his powers play. Can he do different things to help people? Yes. Absolutely, unquestionable. Do other people, with different skill sets, less opportunity, also have the capability to do more good to others? Also yes. Regardless of his powers, he is one man. He cannot be omnipresent, and he knows, or at least suspects, he will die. He wants to leave the world with the best possible example of helping others to the best of your ability.


#14

I’m using “whether Batman dies” as more of a shorthand for the fact that, by the laws of narrative Batman is every bit as powerful as Superman in that he is always going to win. Batman always wins, Superman always wins, the hero always wins. how fast is the Flash? he’s as fast as the story needs him to be. Next Generation isn’t less interesting than Original Star Trek just because the Enterprise D is more powerful. The powers don’t make him less interesting they give you more story telling options.


#15

Ehhhh I mean is the problem really superman or is it just how people envision him? As like The Oldest Superhero Ever. Like I think you’ve gotta just figure out what works with superman sometimes and sometimes that stuff is goofy bullshit romance with monsters sometimes.

Like what’s more interesting in a superman story him punching the world to death or him going undercover fake married with lois lane and then him having to juggle two simultaneous fake identities? (TO GO UNDERCOVER HE COULD JUST SWITCH GLASSES IT WOULD BE HILARIOUS)

Like, i don’t understand why a dude whose secret identity is him but with glasses is so fuckign self serious. Let superman be fucking goofy.


#16

Superman definitely need to acknowledge that his powers contribute to who he is, in the sense that, Superman is a guy who was raised to believe that everyone should use what they have to help others and so, having been given so much by his alien DNA he is constantly pushing himself to do more to help people. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need (oh yeah, Superman is all about that class struggle, the early stories are mostly just him harassing corrupt factory owners).

Superman needs those connections to Lois and Jimmy and the guy down the hall or whoever he brushes up against on the subway so that he never forgets who these people are and what he is fighting for and doesn’t go all Doctor Manhattan and become a distant god.

Narratively those connections are important because they give him more… weaknesses is the wrong word, because they’re his strength, but things he cares about that can be threatened, every hero needs to care about something for there to be conflict, and also they give him people he can interact with and be vulnerable with.

much has been made of is Superman the disguise or Clark Kent, but I have this theory that Superman actually has three identities, there’s Clark Kent, the kind and honest but clumsy, meek, and reporter, that’s obviously largely facade. and then there’s Superman who is a pillar of strength and stoicism and he never gives up and never shows weakness, that’s a bit closer to the truth maybe, but it’s still a bit of front, that Superman is a symbol more than a man.
Then there’s the Superman/Clark Kent that only his closest friends see, the Superman you get when he is just hanging out with Batman after a case, or the Clark Kent who you get when he is having a quiet picnic on the roof of the Daily Planet with Lois Lane before he has to fly off to save the day again, those moments, when he doesn’t have to pretend to be just Clark Kent and he doesn’t have to pretend to be just the cape and the S and the powers, those moments are when he can be who he really is which is both, a man with incredible powers and a strong moral fibre, but also hopes and fears and dreams and doubts who wonders who he would be if weren’t Superman and fears who he might become if he weren’t Clark Kent. A man who is completely head over heels in love with Lois Lane because he sees in her everything he knows humanity can be somebody with out his powers who isn’t bullet proof who still does everything she can and puts her life on the line again and again to fight for Truth and Justice.


#17

I think Lois and Clark The New Adventures of Superman (or whatever the full title was) was my first and probably still my main exposure to Superman stories and honestly, it’s been a while, but that was just kind of goofy fun, right? HG Wells showing up to make sure their future utopia is founded or whatever.


#18

hmmm interesting, I actually prefer the idea that Clark Kent treats doing the work of Superman as a job he has to fulfill. Which is a responsibility instilled in him by his parents (his parents parents, not his biological parents). He has the ability, therefore he does the work. Superman is a role he has to fill out, so he does it, but it brings him very little fulfillment. He prefers being regular old Clark Kent and if given the choice he would punch the clock and go home, but that’s not who he is.

That’s obviously not coming from any sort of extensive background knowledge, I don’t really read comics ( I feel like that gives me an advantage, from a writing standpoint tho, just because I have a fresher perspective). Like I think the main issue with the character of Superman is that he lacks tension with our expectations. Everything that you expect him to do he does, and that makes for a boring character and puts the onus on the supporting cast to make interesting scenarios.

Like, don’t get me wrong, you’re brushing up against something with this post. But the main problem with it is the idea that Superman is ever at risk at being distant. Which he isn’t. He was raised in Kansas with wheat farmers for christssake, he’s the most down to earth motherfucker there is. In fact he’s too down to earth it’s a wonder he can even fly (likely quote from lois lane).

I also think it’s a mistake to think of Clark Kent as a mask or facade, like there are aspects of it that are (the clumisness meant to disguise his superspeed, avoiding fights to avoid hurting people and revealing his Abs of Steel) but like the reason he does those things is out of fear of alienating people and further conflict, rather than because he wants to actively hide who he is or protect people around him from his “true self” (which is like… yo dude you’re fucking SUPERMAN if they were in danger you could save them np no questions ASKED). So yeah Clark Kent has coping mechanisms to keep a fairly normal life, but that also means he Wants to Keep that fairly normal life, which is why I think that Superman is 100% a Job To Him. Like being a volunteer firefighter.

Also I like your point about his love for Lois coming from admiration. But imo I think that he sees her more as a role model not because she’s a human and lives up to his ideals but because she lives up to ideals in a way that he wishes he could. I see Superman more as a character that Clark needs to portray when he’s doing what he needs to for society and I think that’s where a lot of writers and me differ haha. Where Clark would sit down in a noodle shop and complain about how nobody has any respect for the hard work he does, Superman would nod along with peoples complaints and make them feel heard (in my head his Superman voice is sort of like his version of a retail voice and it freaks jimmy the fuck out whenever he uses it)


#19

actually I totally got the fake marriage idea from lois and clark (and like 20 some odd years of existing fanfiction tropes). I haven’t seen it yet (a friend pointed me to it) but it seems suitably goofy For My Dark Needs.


#20

Get you a Superman that can do both.